I have to admit, after a week-long vacation aboard the Karen Marie, I was feeling pretty good about myself. Sporting a fresh tan, my shoulders were relaxed and my arms swung easily at my side; there was a strut in my step as I walked the docks. I was proud of my boat and the fact that we made it to three new destinations together, returning no worse for wear.
There would be no sailing the weekend after our trip, as Karen’s family was in town for their annual visit to Newport. Shoulder tension returned, just a bit, as we prepared an itinerary for their visit. An active family, we planned to spend Saturday afternoon exploring Jamestown’s tranquil Dutch Harbor via Stand-Up Paddleboards and kayaks. (This is in spite of the fact that I often scoff at the local “hippies” who practice yoga on the elongated surfboards near our marina.)
I played through the afternoon multiple times in my head. We would enjoy a leisurely paddle out to Dutch Island then take a short walk to the lighthouse on the southern end. We’d get just enough exercise to burn off breakfast and not feel guilty about fresh fish tacos from The Shack afterwards.
And it started off just like I had hoped. I snapped pictures from my WaterShot submersible cell-phone case of happy smiles and shared laughter. I even let myself smile as we reached the lighthouse. Everything was going according to plan and I could practically taste the celebratory tacos. I walked along the shoreline, perfecting my rock skipping technique as Karen and her older sister embarked on a “short race.”
Busy counting skips, I lost track of them until a passing boater and his son mentioned that the sisters were fighting against a strong current and might need help. He was right; they were paddling and paddling but being pushed farther north away from their intended destination. Like the tough guy I fancy myself, I took off after them to help guide them out of the channel and away from the incoming current.
Tough guy decision, yes. Smart, not so much.
After reaching them and trying to coach them out of the channel, I found myself being swept up in the current at the same speed I could paddle.
“Some lifeguard I’d make,” I thought to myself.
After much labored paddling, we eventually did get out of the channel and away from danger but not before ending up nearly a mile away from the rental shop.”What was the full day rental fee,” I wondered, as we crawled desperately towards home. Resorting to paddling from a seated position to rest our legs, we were not a pretty sight.
I waved down a passing boat and asked for a lift. The “captain” informed me that he didn’t want to bring the boards on his boat, pushed his throttles to the pins and left me spitting mad and struggling to stand in his wake. I was furious.
“He’s lucky he wasn’t within an oars reach,” I grumbled.
Later (much later) I realize I wasn’t mad at him, I was mad at myself (OK, and him too a little) for not paying attention to what Sailing for Dummies tells you on page one: be aware of the wind direction and current. I ignored both of those things.
The boater who warned me of the current earlier, watched the whole episode unfold and he, along with his young son, came to our aid, towing us on our boards almost the whole way back to the rental shop, saving us from having to dish out the overtime rental fee. I never did catch our new friend’s name but he epitomized the character that most boaters possess. They’re the kind of people that jump to help someone in need without a moment’s thought of reward. The young boy in the boat was learning from one heck of a role model while the not-so-young boy being dragged behind him on a paddle board ate a big slice of humble pie.
Returning to shore with tired shoulders and wobbly legs, we were a tired bunch. Too tired even for fish tacos; all we wanted was water. It took some time, but we we eventually found ourselves rehydrated and able to laugh about the events of the day. It may not have gone according to plan, but it was a day on the water that I know we’ll all remember for a long time.
Our alarm clock blared at the all too early hour of 5:00. Groggy, yet excited for our 26-mile leg to Cuttyhunk, I sat up and peered out our portlight to watch the first rays of sun crest the horizon. What I saw surprised me … nothing. A blanket of fog smothered Jamestown Harbor. It wasn’t until 7:00 that the sunlight permeated the low-lying cloud cover and we set out. A piping-hot cup of coffee was a welcome start to our delayed trip. Rolling 4-foot swells in the inlet, not so much. We were headed west, in the direction of the wind, requiring us to run the engine the entire trip.
The relentless barrage of seas on our starboard side made for a rolly trip. After four hours of bracing ourselves in the cockpit, the southern end of the southernmost Elizabethan Island appeared off our bow; we were finally approaching Cuttyhunk. The hilly Ireland-like landscape is a feast for your eyes, but the narrow approach to Cuttyhunk Harbor demanded concentration. A few silent Hail Marys later and we were tied to a mooring. I opted to celebrate our successful trip by diving into the cool-clear water, which the island is known for. The stress and apprehension of the day washed off before I could surface.
I had been to Cuttyhunk before, but as a young lad, and the clear water was something I remembered well. The other thing I remembered was a World War II bunker on the highest point of the island that served as a U-boat lookout. Filled with equal parts energy and imagination, my brother and I climbed through it for what seemed like hours. It was disappointing to see that the fort has since been boarded up; the view of Martha’s Vineyard from it however was incredible, especially through adult eyes.
This walk was followed by a lazy afternoon of swimming, sipping cold beer and checkers. A dinner of ribs aboard my parent’s boat was a delicious way to end the day. We cleared our plates and were content to sit in silence and watch the sun set behind the hills of Cuttyhunk. First a shade of yellow, it morphed into a brilliant orange before turning into a deep red that illuminated the sky and mirror-calm water around us.
Waking up with sun pouring through our overhead hatch and fresh air wafting through the boat refreshed and energized Karen and I and we immediately set out to explore Cuttyhunk. A small bakery, just feet from the dinghy dock attracted mooring dwellers like mice to cheese. Breakfast of pastries and coffee was a simple, yet satisfying start of the day.
The first stop on our island hike was a small non-denominational church with nautical décor that hasn’t changed much in its 100-plus years of service. A one room schoolhouse and library were both closed, but peeking through the windows, you couldn’t help but marvel at the quaint way of life here.
A well-worn trail took us from the highest point of the island, and the bunker I remembered from my childhood, to additional World War II era observation bunkers that were still open for kids, like myself, to climb into. Dreams of being a U-Boat spotter flooded my consciousness. We tried to get to the southern-most point of the island but a flooded trail stood in our way. Maybe next year.
An afternoon dinghy ride took us past a 3-mile long stretch of land owned by the Forbes family called Nashawena Island. We were shocked to see a wild herd of Scottish Highland Cattle strolling the beach. Set against a backdrop of rolling green hills, it’s easy to believe we were somehow transported to northern Europe. And that was before a curious seal poked its head out of the water just a couple hundred feet from our raft.
Our attention-starved puppy entertained us, when we stopped at the beach, with her impressive swimming abilities and seemingly endless energy. A respectable runner myself, Zoe seemed to be smiling as she smoked me in a series of beach races. Another alfresco dinner and drop-dead gorgeous sunset wrapped up our short time on the island.
Cuttyhunk Island has a way of forcing a simple lifestyle on you. It’s a place that makes you face life’s tough questions like: “Do I go swimming then hike, or hike then go swimming?” Like a pair of boys running around an empty bunker, my two days here reminded me that sometimes it’s the simplest things that leave you with the sweetest memories.